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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 19;367(1598):1984-94. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0055.

Revisiting the syntactic abilities of non-human animals: natural vocalizations and artificial grammar learning.

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Behavioural Biology, Institute of Biology and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Leiden University, PO Box 9505, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands.


The domain of syntax is seen as the core of the language faculty and as the most critical difference between animal vocalizations and language. We review evidence from spontaneously produced vocalizations as well as from perceptual experiments using artificial grammars to analyse animal syntactic abilities, i.e. abilities to produce and perceive patterns following abstract rules. Animal vocalizations consist of vocal units (elements) that are combined in a species-specific way to create higher order strings that in turn can be produced in different patterns. While these patterns differ between species, they have in common that they are no more complex than a probabilistic finite-state grammar. Experiments on the perception of artificial grammars confirm that animals can generalize and categorize vocal strings based on phonetic features. They also demonstrate that animals can learn about the co-occurrence of elements or learn simple 'rules' like attending to reduplications of units. However, these experiments do not provide strong evidence for an ability to detect abstract rules or rules beyond finite-state grammars. Nevertheless, considering the rather limited number of experiments and the difficulty to design experiments that unequivocally demonstrate more complex rule learning, the question of what animals are able to do remains open.

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